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Is ‘partially good’ good enough?

Paul Vanston, CEO of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), calls on the resources and waste industry to be bold in its actions to combat climate change and advance the circular economy in 2020

‘We lack the ambition needed to avoid this climate emergency. Our leaders need to step up. The world would have looked very different if young people were in charge today’.

These were the words of Sofie Nordvik, Norway’s youth delegate in the closing stages of the COP25 Conference in Madrid.

Paul Vanston, CEO of INCPEN
Paul Vanston, CEO of INCPEN
COP stands for Conference of the Parties. There have been 25 global conferences since the Earth Summit in 1992. The failure of governments in Madrid to agree how to combat climate change now means COP26 in Glasgow in November 2020 takes on even greater urgency.

Bold climate change actions and a historic agreement in Glasgow are needed to match the severity of the climate and biodiversity threats the world faces.

In terms of what we in the resources and waste sector can do, I offer the following positive thoughts on how 2020 could and should be even more purposeful for all actors in our industry.

Squeezing the most from collaboration

There has been undoubted success in recent times in getting all the parties together in the same room – manufacturers, retailers, brands, governments, councils, waste management companies, recyclers, reprocessors and the like. However, it is now such a regular occurrence that we’ve created a comfort zone: that being to engage and to ‘agree to disagree’.

2020 must be different. We must negotiate across the sectors and come to agreements on how we change systems, sometimes radically, to demonstrate maximum efforts and impacts on decarbonising the UK. Scotland’s Recycling Summit on 18 December led by Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham is a purposeful opportunity to start ‘squeezing the most from collaboration’. More opportunities across all four UK administrations will follow.

Focused on circular economy and climate change outcomes

2020 looks set to be another year discussing the ins-and-outs of extended producer responsibility (EPR), deposit return systems (DRS) and consistency of recycling collections (and packaging formats and sorting systems too).

As worthwhile as those are to create a new whole-system approach to valuing resources, does EPR + DRS + consistency = the circular economy and climate change outcomes?

Partially, yes, if well-designed. But all sectors must ensure ample discussion time is given to ‘outcomes’. Being content to agree transactional issues alone (for example, the flow of money) is not enough. We must also agree how that money will generate substantial uplifts in results on the circular economy and climate change.

Fully optimal systems

If we came across a bridge or an aeroplane with signs saying they were ‘partially well-designed’ or ‘partially optimal’, how many of us would be confident they are fit for purpose? Not many of us, I’d suggest. Similarly, none of us should be content with delivering partial results on the circular economy or partially good climate change benefits. Fully optimal systems and results must be our goal. That means a willingness and readiness to open up systems and results to scrutiny, and to identify and remove ‘sub-optimal’ wherever it exists across the whole supply chain.

INCPEN has unanimously agreed to support the efforts of the world’s governments to cap global temperatures to no more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.

But it will need the combined efforts of all governments and public sector bodies, the private sector and communities to transform economies and reduce the impacts of how we live our lives.

It’s my hope that 2020 is a pivotal year where the efforts and agreements of people across the resources and waste sector match the severity of the climate and biodiversity threats we face.